President Buu Nygren signs proclamation to oppose decriminalization of peyote
WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. — The Navajo Nation has reaffirmed its stance to protect, preserve and conserve the sacred use of peyote by the Navajo people as set forth in the Navajo Bill of Rights.
On Nov. 3, Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren signed a proclamation to oppose state efforts to decriminalize peyote for commercial or recreational purposes. Members of Azéé’ Bee Nahaghá of Diné Nation, the Coalition for the Peyote Way of Life, and the Native American Diné Church of New Mexico attended the signing and expressed their support.
Known in the Navajo language as azéé’, peyote is a sacred plant and sacrament used in ceremonies by members of the Native American Church and Azéé’ Bee Nahaghá of Diné Nation.
“Peyote holds deep spiritual significance for our people and its religious use has been protected in recognition of our sovereignty and rights to practice our traditional ceremonies,” Nygren said. “Broad decriminalization or legalization efforts risk more widespread recreational or commercial use of peyote outside of the church.”
The proclamation expresses the Navajo Nation’s position that peyote should continue to be protected for religious use by Indians under exemptions in state and federal drug laws. It states decriminalization by states will further endanger the naturally occurring availability of the cactus plant and substantially affect the religious, ceremonial and cultural practices of the Navajo Nation and its people.
Nygren voiced his support for leaders of the Navajo Native American Church to oppose efforts by pharmaceutical companies to extract mescaline from sacred peyote plants for scientific research and potential profit.
Leaders of the Native American Church, which incorporates peyote into ceremonies, have argued that allowing pharmaceutical companies to extract and study mescaline from peyote could threaten the age-old spiritual and cultural practices of Native people.
Pharmaceutical companies have shown interest in studying the chemical properties of mescaline for medical applications. Native American Church leaders worry this could set a precedent that would make it harder for members to legally access peyote for ceremonies in the future. Nygren expressed skepticism of claims that such research would not infringe on traditional religious practices.
He said he stands with Navajo Native American Church leaders to protect its traditional use.
The American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 protects the rights of Native Americans to exercise their traditional religions by ensuring access to sites, use, and possession of sacred objects and the freedom to worship through ceremonies and traditional rites, the proclamation states.
Amendments to the law in 1994 provided for the use, possession and transportation of peyote by an Indian for bona fide traditional ceremonial purposes.
Currently, peyote is classified as a Schedule I controlled substance under the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970. It is specifically exempted for religious, ceremonial, and cultural use only by Navajo people and members of other federally recognized tribes.
“Peyote is part of our ceremonies and holds connection to our ancestors,” Nygren said. “We cannot allow it to be exploited for commercial gain or scientific curiosity in a way that threatens the Native American Church way of life.”
He said the Navajo Nation joins other Native American tribes and nations to oppose efforts to allow commercial extraction and research on peyote.
Several tribes have also opposed state proposals that seek to decriminalize peyote, a small cactus that grows in Texas. Tribal leaders from the Navajo Nation testified at hearings in Washington, D.C., arguing that peyote should remain strictly regulated and its use confined to Native religious practices.
If peyote was decriminalized for recreational purposes, they said, it could threaten the traditional ways their communities have safely used the sacred plant for generations.
“Peyote is at the heart of our spiritual beliefs and practices,” Nygren said. “We have carefully guarded and protected peyote to ensure its proper use for holy ceremonies. Opening up non-religious or casual use could disrespect its sacredness in our culture and beliefs.”
Tribes argue that broad access to peyote could encourage abuse and make peyote harder to obtain for legitimate ceremonial use. They express concern that non-Native users may disrespect peyote’s significance if not educated in traditional practices.
The religious and cultural rights of Native American tribes to use peyote have been recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court since the 1990s. But some legislators argue full decriminalization is a matter of drug policy reform and personal freedom.
Tribal leaders plan to continue to lobby against such proposals to protect the sensitive role peyote plays in their indigenous identities and heritage.
Leaders of the Native American Church at the signing praised Nygren and the Navajo Nation for defending their religious liberties and for standing against threats to traditional ceremonial practices.
The proclamation will be shared with state and federal lawmakers.
Information provided by the Office of the President and Vice President.